“Old Seams of the Ancient World”: Reading Patrick Chamoiseau’s Manifesto Against Borders

“The dream and the political vision must arise, and that is when the poetic word is as fundamental as that of experts or economists.”

In our Spring Issue this year, we ran a special feature covering literature from countries affected by President Trump’s infamous “Muslim Ban.” This was in recognition that literature is reflective of political conditions and that it is a powerful form of protest against oppression. In today’s piece, Fiona Le Brun looks at the manifesto against the Muslim Ban penned by Patrick Chamoiseau, a Prix Goncourt recipient and notable figure in Créolité literature. As France emerges from a divisive election against the backdrop of the unprecedented European refugee crisis, reading Chamoiseau reminds us that literature enables us to conceptualize cultural openness. 

This February, Martiniquais author Patrick Chamoiseau, whose previous works include the Goncourt-winning novel Texaco (1992. Translated into English by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov in 1997),  launched a call for solidarity with migrants of the world. Not only was this call a reaction to President Trump’s executive order blocking citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, but also a reaction against Europe’s palpable fear revealed by Brexit and the several manifestations of the rejection of migrants.

A couple of months later in May 2017—between the two rounds of the closely watched French presidential election—his essay Frères migrants: Contre la barbarie (Migrant Brothers: Against Barbarism) was released. This invitation to resist intolerance, racism, and indifference is concluded by his manifesto, Les Poètes déclarent (Declaration of Poets).

Today Chamoiseau’s manifesto is more relevant than ever, for both the United States and France. While the French are rejoicing in the victory of the youthful, moderate and well-read Emmanuel Macron over the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, the latter still gathered over 10 million votes, mostly motivated by immigration topics. This temporary relief must not have us overlook the fact that France, whose leaders never miss an opportunity to cast the country as the nation of human rights, has welcomed only a little over 25,000 refugees last year, far less than Germany or Sweden over the same period of time. The results of this election sure bring a glimmer of hope, as the winning candidate seems interested in real change and wants to work hand in hand with fellow EU countries. He also appears to be ready to wipe the dust off our old colonial shelves: back in February, while on a trip to Algeria, Macron called France’s colonial past a “crime against humanity,” and stood firm in the face of attacks by right-wingers. But his task remains difficult. He still has to convince millions of French citizens to support his agenda. The upcoming parliamentary elections will be decisive for Macron’s mandate in a very divided country, as well as for the uncertain future of the EU.

In the meantime, paralyzed by this political rigidity and a climate of fear, Western countries let thousands of people die at their borders. For Chamoiseau, when the current institutions and systems of representation don’t have the means to give a political response to this human catastrophe, “the dream and the political vision must arise, and that is when the poetic word is as fundamental as that of experts or economists.” This is why we need to hear Chamoiseau’s words, in as many languages as possible, against what he refers to as “the barbarism of borders.”

Translations are currently in the works, in Italian, German and English (Yale University Press). It will be worthwhile to see how translators adapt the language of créolité (creolity or creoleness)—a notion Chamoiseau theorized through the work of Jean Bernabé and Raphaël Confiant.

This historical, literary, and aesthetic intellectual current consists of declaring the invention of a common humanity. It is the recognition of an identity of its own—the recognition of a language and a history woven between Africa, the Caribbean, America, Asia and Europe.

Chamoiseau’s writing embodies the beauty and contradictions of the French and Creole languages, and the tensions resulting from our colonial past. Taking note of the existence of a Creole culture essentially based in orality, he considers the development of an oral literature for which the writer inherits oral phrases of Creole storytellers. His free form use of French is punctuated by Creole words, whose wealth has so often been reduced and even devalued. He grew up at a time when Creole and French were strictly separated and language was used as a tool of domination. Learning French in the overseas territories meant taking on a French identity and alienation from a Creole way of being. Chamoiseau remembers the traumatic disregard towards Creole. He evokes his literary approach and artistic itinerary in the essay Écrire en pays dominé (Writing in the Dominated Land) published in Asymptote.

This notion of créolité sheds light on France’s colonial past and the way the country deals with its overseas territories in the Caribbean today. Chamoiseau explains that France’s overseas territories are still treated like colonies in many aspects, as the forgotten children of a condescending métropole. He explains that these territories are not France—they are cultural and historical entities located in the Caribbean that belong to the American Creole world, with strong solidarities with Africa as well as France. An “independentist,” he defines himself as “an American Creole” and explains that there is no such thing as a “French identity,” for identity is by definition based on relationships. Identity is a constant becoming, a permanent construction.

Chamoiseau doesn’t leave us without solutions. What he wishes for these territories is emancipation, and initiative. That’s where the notion of créolité takes on full significance: it is the constant marriage proving that the Creoles cannot be reduced to uniformity in France, but rather to a historical and cultural specificity in France. France is not an identity, not an idea, it is a project. A project of emancipation, of autonomy of the individual and society. An idea that was built on multiple territories, with a complex history.

From an international perspective, Chamoiseau sought to develop the concept of mondialité (“globality”) with Edouard Glissant, with a goal to translate, from a political and poetic viewpoint, a new concept of the world based on openness of cultures, a concept which is endangered by the forced conformity of globalization.

In mondialité, the concept where identity is purely based on relations, there is no such thing as immigration control. Sometimes, poetry needs to precede politics. This essay serves as an anthem for tolerance, hospitality and fraternity—a manifesto for a new world, one that makes obsolete these deadly borders the author describes as “les vieilles coutures du monde ancien”—the old seams of the ancient world.

Fiona Le Brun is a bilingual translator and copywriter. Born in France and a graduate of Sciences Po, Fiona spent 4 years in North America before moving to Paris to devote herself to copywriting and translation from English into her native language: French. Currently living between Paris and Mexico City, Fiona is in constant contact with the anglophone world, her adopted culture, via her international clientele and frequent travels. Working regularly with major advertising agencies such as Havas and BETC, she specializes in the areas of marketing, advertising and journalism. She also translates pop culture books for the publishing house Huginn & Munnin.


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